Karl Marx

Page 10 of 18

Now these ideas, in themselves arbitrary and fantastic, show how Marx's thought at that epoch was still in an undecided or amphibious phase, in which the torrid sun of British economic science had not as yet succeeded in totally dispelling the fogs of German philosophy. But another incompatibility lessens the value of the book or diminishes its doctrinal efficacy; for Marx, at this stage of his studies, invariably gave to the history of doctrine too preponderant a place, introducing it insistently into the course of his own [Pg 95]exposition, which was thus deprived of continuity and weakened in force.

Further, the book we are considering did not directly bear upon any of the social questions which strongly arouse public interest, but was restricted to the study of two theories whose importance at first sight seems purely academic, the theory of value and the theory of money.

Marx contended that the value of commodities is exclusively determined by the quantity of labour incorporated into them; he traced the affiliations of this thesis with the work of its first enunciators in Italy and in England; but he did not offer any reasoned demonstration of its truth. On the contrary, he frankly recognised that this contention is full of contradictions alike theoretical and practical, contradictions that appear insoluble; but he promised to vanquish them in the subsequent course of his exposition.

Far more noteworthy is the chapter on[Pg 96] money, for it contains a masterly criticism of the quantitative theory of Ricardo, and an effective refutation of the "labour notes" idea of Bray, Gray, Proudhon, and others. According to this plan, every producer performing a certain quantum of labour would receive from the state a voucher entitling him to obtain from other producers the result of an equal quantum of labour; but the suggestion implies complete ignorance of the intrinsic conditions of the individualistic economy, wherein each producer creates an object without any certainty that there will be a market for it, or that it represents a real utility and will fetch a definite price. It obviously follows that the producer cannot be sure that he will be able to sell the article which he has produced, or that he will be able to transform it into anything with universal purchasing power; the product has to be baptised or sanctioned by the market, which alone has power to stamp it as useful by purchasing it.

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Now the "labour note" system claims that it can forcibly dispense with the market by supplying to the producer of an article whose utility and saleable value has not been recognised by the market, a universally available purchasing power. The practical outcome of this forcible method is that the producer of a useless article can by means of his "labour note" secure for himself a useful article, whereas the producer of this latter will not in turn be able to exchange his own "labour note" for any object possessing utility; that is to say, the article made by the first producer will find no purchaser, and the "labour note" of the second producer will effect no purchase. This is inevitable, for the proposed reform is inconsistent, eclectic, and incomplete, since it pretends to socialise exchange while maintaining production and distribution upon their old individualistic basis, and overlooks the incongruity of any such supposition.

The "labour note" system cannot rationally[Pg 98] be instituted until production has been socialised, or until the state shall impose upon each individual the production of a specified quantity and quality of commodities, correlatively imposing upon the consumer the obligation to acquire these. In such conditions, however, we could no longer speak of commodities or of exchange, for these phenomena belong exclusively to an individualistic economy and would have no place in a socialised economy. This means that the reform of exchange by the suppression of profit can only be effected by the suppression of exchange itself, by the institution of the co-operative commonwealth. Indeed, Robert Owen, who proposed the "labour note" system in 1832, and was the most brilliant of its advocates, clearly recognised this difficulty, and understood that the socialisation of production would be an indispensable preliminary to the adoption of the plan. It was the impatience of his disciples which forced him to [Pg 99]inaugurate the system within the framework of the capitalist economy by founding the National Equitable Labour Exchange. The logic of facts gave a patent demonstration of the irrationality of the attempt; and Owen, saddened and humiliated, was compelled to witness the failure of the new institution.

It will readily be understood that these abstruse and abstract investigations, devoid as they are of any tangible connection with the burning problems of property, were not likely to arouse interest among the members of the party. Nothing could be more natural than the tone of hopeless discouragement with which the volume was greeted even by the author's most devoted friends. Liebknecht, for example, declared that he had never before experienced so great a disappointment. Biskamp enquired what on earth it was all about; Burgers deplored that Marx should have published a work so dull and fragmentary. It is true that the book had a [Pg 100]moderate sale; Rau quoted it in his treatise; certain Russian and American economists made it the subject of profound studies. Nevertheless, the publisher refused to proceed with the issue.

Hardly had this literary bickering come to an end when Marx became involved in a violent quarrel with the distinguished naturalist Karl Vogt, who publicly charged him with setting snares for the German exiles and with having sordid relationships with the police. Marx replied with a savage booklet entitled Herr Vogt (London, 1860). The style of this polemic writing is intolerably vulgar; but in other respects the book is noteworthy, for it contains interesting revelations anent the Italian campaign and the relationships between Turin and the Tuileries. We must remember, moreover, that the accusation here launched against Vogt, that he was in the pay of the Second Empire, was subsequently confirmed beyond dispute, for in 1871 among the[Pg 101] ruins of the Tuileries there was found a receipt for frs. 40,000 which had been paid over to Vogt.

But scientific failures, personal contests, persistent and distressing domestic discomforts, seemed to inspire our athlete with renewed strength for the continuance of the work he had begun. Nevertheless, profiting by experience, he decided upon a yet further modification in the plan of his book, resolving to defer to its final section all historico-critical disquisitions, and to concentrate his energies upon the positive analysis of concrete reality. Further, being prevented by frequent illness from tackling the more difficult themes of pure economics, he devoted these long intervals of comparative leisure to statistical investigations and to the perusal of factory inspectors' reports, of white books and of blue books, and he plunged into the study of the economic history of Great Britain, so that it became possible for him to interleave the pages of[Pg 102] abstract theory, necessarily difficult to understand, with pages that are really living, pages that vibrate with the reflex of reality. At length, abandoning the method he had previously followed of publishing fragmentary essays, he decided to rewrite the work throughout before sending it to press.

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